In the year that Camden County residents voted overwhelmingly against local rocket launches, county officials have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars reviving lofty plans to transform the region into Georgia’s space coast.
A Georgia Supreme Court ruling in February upholding the right of county residents to influence unpopular government decisions ended supporters’ hopes of building a spaceport in southeastern Georgia.
Camden County’s legal fees continued to mount as the company appealed to the state’s highest court to overturn a March 2022 vote barring the county from completing a $4.8 million real estate deal for the proposed launch site.
The county also needed lawyers to defend itself in its longstanding struggle to keep details of spaceport spending from the public.
A February subpoena from the Camden County grand jury and a letter from the attorney general contributed to hundreds of spaceport documents being uploaded to the county’s website.
In the early stages of the county’s space initiative, Camden resident Steve Weinkle was a major supporter of the project. He wanted to watch rocket launches on his back porch while partying. His excitement waned, however, as county commissioners continued to spend money to secure federal authorization to launch missiles near Cumberland Island.
Questionable expenses included the $51,000 spent on a fire risk assessment based on a nonexistent missile, Weinkle said.
“After the Supreme Court ruling in February this year, there should have been no more bills,” he said. “The fact is we don’t even realize the full extent. These documents, now being circulated over a period of months, continue to raise suspicions as to why they have been so persistent.”
Several attempts by the Georgia Recorder to obtain a response to the Camden County Administrator and Commission Chairman’s criticism have been unsuccessful. Camden County is struggling to recover nearly $1 million it paid in advance for a land purchase agreement with Union Carbide to use for the proposed spaceport.
(READ MORE: Georgia’s Camden County Struggles Not to Publicly Disclose Spending on Failed Spaceport Project)
Union Carbide last week filed a motion to dismiss Camden’s complaint over the contract for the exclusive rights to purchase the property where borough leaders initially planned to launch rockets the size of the 230-foot-tall SpaceX Falcon 9 into the stratosphere.
Attorneys for Camden argue that the county should be reimbursed the $960,000 it has paid since 2015 after Union Carbide announced it would not renew the option agreement a fourth time.
“The county does not cite any legal authority to support its contention that a party must return a county government’s lawful payments under a contract if the county revokes its prior approval of the contract and payments years later,” attorneys from said Union Carbide in the legal motion.
Spaceport accounts reveal years of expenses
Newly released spaceport accounts show millions of dollars have been spent applying for a Federal Aviation Administration license since 2015, as well as costs for attorneys, consultants and other professionals.
However, when profits from the spaceport surpassed $10 million, a group of concerned local residents managed to gather enough signatures to bend the project to the will of voters.
The critics used a rarely invoked state law to force a referendum. 72 percent of voters supported the binding decision to ban the district from buying land for the construction of the spaceport.
Despite objections from local residents, Camden officials continued to pile up more legal fees to overturn the referendum results.
The county spent about $150,000 on attorney fees in 2022 as it was represented in the referendum lawsuit by Atlanta’s Hall Booth Smith. During the Oct. 6 hearing, the firm’s attorney, Pearson Cunningham, argued that this type of referendum voting was not permitted under the state’s constitution.
(READ MORE: Spaceport blockade vote upheld by Georgia Supreme Court)
Following the Supreme Court ruling against the district on Feb. 7, Savannah-based attorney Hunter Maclean would collect an additional $6,450 from the district for works that would include discussing a possible settlement of an open-file lawsuit related to the spaceport belonged.
In addition, Kimley-Horn County and Associates paid $225,000 for engineering, design and environmental services provided from 2019 through May. A $5,600 bill for January cited the company as coordinating talks between district and spaceport managers, handling project management and preparing “environmental talking points.”
According to the company’s accounts, Fenimore Ventures Group met with potential spaceport developers, vendors, and officials from the Department of Defense and other federal agencies during this time.
“What other purpose would that have had, other than trying to convince anyone who joins the project to rescind public disclosure, that a real missile wasn’t authorized and that the FAA shouldn’t authorize a real missile?” said Weinkle.
Camden also paid more than $10,000 in 2022 to a lobbying firm led by former Georgia Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Joe Tanner. A favorable assessment by the Department’s Coastal Resources Division was required to ensure the project met all government environmental regulations.
Longtime spokesman for the spaceport, John Simpson, was paid a monthly salary of $7,500 by the county through March 2022. Another $500 went to pamphlets and posters promoting the benefits of the spaceport in the weeks leading up to the referendum.
Other questions remain in the open record debate
In February, a technology specialist who served on a Camden County grand jury was unhappy with the county’s response to the defeat in the Supreme Court case.
“The county’s response was that the law was wrong and that we should rewrite the law,” St. Mary’s resident Christopher Walker said in an interview this week. “That baffled me because, again, I didn’t understand how they could say that not only are the citizens wrong, but now the Georgia Supreme Court is wrong as well.”
(READ MORE: Georgia Cosmodrome land deal failed, says site owner)
As the jury’s term ended, Walker didn’t have much time to sift through the clutter of documents. The details of emails could not be seen without clicking on individual files on computer hard drives containing tens of thousands of emails.
The grand jury recommended that county officials be more transparent about future major projects and convene a special grand jury to review decisions on implementing the spaceport.
“Nobody will ever convince me that our subpoenas were not the cause of this county transfer,” Walker said.
In April, a Camden County judge sided with Georgia’s coastal environmentalists, One Hundred Miles, after years of trying to force the county to comply with the Georgia Open Records Act after repeatedly asking for exceptions to keep details secret hold.
The county continues to withhold some documents, according to Brian Gist, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents One Hundred Miles.
“Camden County has presented thousands of documents that were first requested by One Hundred Miles a few years ago,” Gist said. “We have started reviewing these documents and are still in the process of evaluating their content.”
Camden County continues to withhold other documents, invoking national security exceptions or other government disclosure records, he said.
“We are in discussions with Camden County about whether these documents need to be released as well,” Gist said.
Read more at GeorgiaRecorder.com.